As you hopefully know by now, we are resuming the option of in-person worship at both services this Sunday, June 20!

The last time we held indoor, in-person worship was on Sunday, March 8, 2020, which was a little over fifteen months ago! I can recall, at the beginning of pandemic, wondering if we would be able to responsibly return to indoor worship by Easter 2020! That seems laughably naïve in hindsight, but I think almost none of us had any real idea about the scale (and the toll) that this pandemic would take in terms of so much of what we had previously taken for granted in how we lived our lives as individuals, as workplaces, as schools, as churches, as a nation. And, of course, it would have been almost unimaginable for most of us back then that fifteen months later, we would be mourning the death of more than 600,000 people in the United States alone.

At the same time, few of us would have imagined how creatively we would find ways to continue doing the most important things in our lives, even in the deepest days of quarantine. Most of us had never heard of Zoom before March 2020, much less dreamed that it would be a lifeline to staying connected with friends and family members, or a forum for workplaces, schools, and congregations to continue gathering, learning, collaborating, and supporting one another.

And while we here at First Pres were already in the final stages of launching a livestream on Facebook when the pandemic hit, we had envisioned that as an alternative for worship for people who were out of town or otherwise unable to attend in person, and for people in the community to experience something of our worship life and decide whether they wanted to come in person.

I, for one, never anticipated that fifteen months of my ministry as a pastor would be spent preaching in an empty Sanctuary to a camera lens! Yet what so many of us discovered was a surprising power to worshipping together online, including (somewhat surprisingly) building connections and relationships with others. “Before the pandemic, I usually just ended up sitting next to the same few people most of the time in worship,” one of you said to me at one point; “but online I see names and faces and interact with people that I never knew when we were meeting in person.”

All of this is why we used the language of “digital” rather than “virtual” to describe our online worship and ministry throughout the pandemic. “Virtual” sounds like, “almost, but not quite.” But for many people, digital media provided a real opportunity to authentically worship, hold meetings, have Bible studies, do Sunday School, connect with one another in fellowship activities, and so much more. Many of us even learned that we preferred digital space for certain activities, while other activities were real but did not replace a desire for in-person gathering.

As we move forward out of the pandemic, then, we are striving throughout the congregation to carry forward the new wisdom and opportunities we’ve found, even as we resume the best aspects of congregational life, worship, and ministry from before the pandemic.

Similarly, there are some things we will be glad to leave behind from the pandemic, while there are also some things that we will not want to resume from before the pandemic, or at least will not want to resume in the same way.

One of the most obvious and important things we are carrying forward, then, is the power of having both digital and in-person options for many church activities. That is why, among other things, that the livestream will be a permanent part of Sunday morning worship going forward, even as we resume in-person worship as well.

It is also why the Session has approved a “hybrid meeting space” on the church campus, which we are creating for board and committee meetings and other small groups to function well with some people attending in person while others attend digitally. And we will not only be looking at some activities that are, by necessity, in-person only (it’s hard to do a family kite-flying activity online!), but also looking at what we should be doing to expand and deepen our digital engagement with people both within the congregation and well beyond.

It would be hard to overstate how eager I am to be in the Kirk Center and the Sanctuary in worship with many of you again this Sunday. And, I am thrilled that we will continue to welcome and engage our digital congregation as well, as one more way of fulfilling our core values as a congregation of truly being “Welcoming to All.” So: whether in-person or online this Sunday, I hope to see you in worship!

Grace and Peace,